When does Matt Pike sleep? When the influential metal frontman isn’t promoting his project Sleep’s acclaimed comeback record, he’s serving double duty as both the chief vocalist and lead guitarist for High On Fire, one of metal’s most reliably hard-hitting acts. Thankfully, he has enough creative fortitude to spread around his various bands. People have often drawn comparisons between the Oakland stoner metal outfit and Motörhead, and with their first album following the death of Lemmy Kilmister, Electric Messiah, they have crafted a harrowing tribute to the fallen icon. Once again working with prolific producer Kurt Ballou, the band’s eighth studio release doesn’t stray from sludgy, aggressive sound we’ve come to expect from High On Fire, and their fitting send-off stands amongst their most bewitching work to date.
The heart and soul of Motörhead can be felt all throughout the record, nowhere more so than on laudatory title track “Electric Messiah.” Apart from the strong aesthetic influence, the extolling lyrics serve as a fitting eulogy that lionizes Lemmy’s legacy: “All give praise as the ace hits the stage / All are amazed at the cards that he played / My homage paid to the king in his grave / He’s playing bass and he’s melting your face.” Matt Pike has stated that the record was meant to make amends with the legendary frontman, after he was confronted with accusations of plagiarism in a striking dream. High On Fire also pull heavily from Motörhead contemporaries on the album, such as Black Sabbath (“The Pallid Mask”) and Thin Lizzy (“Drowning Dog”).
Although the album doesn’t deviate much from their proven formula, it isn’t difficult to chart the band’s artistic evolution over the course of these contentious tracks. Electric Messiah opens with “Spewn From the Earth,” submerging the listener in a sea of pummeling hostility. But from there, High On Fire open up to experimentation. “Steps of the Ziggurat / House of Enlil,” a multifaceted driving march told in fragmented chunks, displays tremendous artistic growth for the band. The track, along with the album’s other lengthy tune (“Sanctioned Annihilation”), truly takes the time to explore its instrumental themes, justifying its epic runtime and highlighting the band’s high-octane riffs as well as their layered harmonies as a cohesive unit.
As one might expect from its theological title, Electric Messiah doesn’t make any bones about exploring direct themes of spirituality. Incorporeal tracks such as “God of the Godless” and “The Witch and the Christ,” heavy in both theme and aesthetic, aim to demystify religious doctrine: “The bloody pentecost / The true belief is lost / Lurker in darkest forests / The thirst for blood is quenched.” Without any room for ambiguity, Pike’s gruff, gravelly vocals drive the message home as he assumes the role of harbinger of doom.
Because High On Fire have been providing metalheads with solid catalog entries, they’ve been taken for granted, seen as a prevalent and persistent force that will always be there to churn out consistent stoner metal albums. But as they prove time and time again on Electric Messiah, they remain one of the hardcore genre’s most engaging hidden gems. The vigorous record stands as both a proper farewell to Lemmy Kilmister and a resounding defense of a band who continues to satisfy fans two decades into their tenure.